May 16, 2020
Re: Winery Event Ordinance
Dear Supervisors Gorin, Gore, Zane, Hopkins and Rabbitt,
Wine & Water Watch (WWW) is a group of concerned citizens that focus on water and natural resources in the environment. We have 250 members that are committed to true sustainability of those resources. Our group has been calling for a full EIR county-wide on cumulative impacts of winery expansion that has gone far beyond the General Plan predictions. This should be conducted before any long-lasting decisions are made . Without that EIR any decision will be based on more assumptions that apparently were not even close to predicting the unprecedented winery growth we have now.
WWW members request that you, as our Supervisors, act in the best interest of the whole community to uphold the protective policies in our current General Plan (GP) and stop the industrialization of our ag lands and rural neighborhoods. Changing the definition of agriculture to allow more tourism-based events, and changing the definition of events to increase hospitality entitlements will benefit large corporate owners and hurt our family-owned businesses. This would put local owners of small businesses under more duress should wineries not only become event centers but restaurants.
Doubling down on the old business model created an even less sustainable economic model.
One of the most important issues facing Sonoma County is over-development of agricultural land. Even small parcels qualify to have wineries on them. The consensus of all stakeholder groups was that wineries, tasting rooms and events do not belong on small parcels. We question why Permit Sonoma has recently tried to push through projects on small parcels (Zo in Dry Creek and Hawkes in Alexander Valley). With the proliferation of wineries comes an excess of events: private and industry-wide events during summer months and holidays and special events for wine club members. Safety, parking, noise, greenhouse gas emissions, and traffic congestion are all made worse by the commercialization of neighborhoods that are on rural roads and two-lane highways near the 20,000 to 500,000 case wineries that are becoming the norm. Ag land is being commercialized in this way and speculators are rushing to get permits so that later their parcels can be sold for millions. It’s not about Ag or even wine… it’s real estate speculation.
Wineries typically ask for more events when requesting a permit and then compromise so that they can advertise at least 18 public events a year; they also include so-called industry-wide events (in which only an estimate of attendees is required). Kenwood Winery is a good example of this. They plan to rev up their marketing plan to increase visitors from the current 20,000 to 35,000 with a final goal of 50,000 plus.
The permitting process cannot rely on enforcement or policing of wineries after the fact. The Sonoma County General Plan has been superseded and the number of wineries predicted for 2020 has been exceeded by more than 80 per cent. Local groups have estimated that tasting rooms, parking lots and event venues on agriculture lands have paved over 8,000 acres in our county already. This is NOT preservation, this is industrialization. This type of intensive land use should be constrained to commercial areas and not allowed in rural areas where roads are crumbling and infrastructure barely exists. Our police are already overburdened with half of the calls now coming from tourists according to recent Press Democrat articles. They can’t take anymore, especially with public safety budget cuts on the horizon.
Tourism is not the cure all for our financial woes. Disposable income has dropped and levels of wine-tasting visitors will continue to diminish as grape gluts, buying and drinking habits have changed. Tourism-based economies are always the last to recover and pay the lowest wages, forcing residents to attempt holding 2 or 3 jobs to stay financially viable. We stand at a time when more out-of-the-box thinking is needed to attract diverse types of businesses that add to the overall quality-of-life for everyone, not just a chosen few corporate winery owners. Ecotourism, technology, and local food security will flourish if given the chance. 96% of our food is imported.
We feel the following should be enacted:
1. Fines for infractions should be greatly increased. Those fines could pay for more enforcement and to support our infrastructure. Last year the Press Democrat reported over 3,000 complaints against the industry.
2. Move all events to areas that can handle the traffic safely as is done in Europe—move industrial ag operations (event centers, tasting rooms) to main thoroughfares off Highway 101.
3. Change the definition of agriculture back to what was the original intention. Restrict rural direct marketing that is causing wineries to compete more and more with each other in a “promotional event war” which favors the biggest investors. This business model is forcing once-stable wineries to borrow and invest more in capitalization to compete, which in turn pushes out local business.
4. Land use conflicts can be addressed by not allowing any more event centers and tasting rooms on our rural lands. With scant rain and megadrought declared where will the water needed to support this industry come from? Flushing toilets, clean up and support services will be required. Local well owners should not be asked to shoulder well drilling costs while the industry drills deeper and deeper. Moratorium on any new water supplies during droughts for this industry with fire season a yearly event should be addressed. All resources are interlinked.
5. Protect our duly-permitted local restaurants and stop issuing commercial kitchens in wineries. Our local restaurants are suffering from the pandemic and many will fail. According to the US government, 100,000 small businesses are expected to fail in this downturn. By not stepping up now to protect our struggling “Main Street” businesses you are displaying favoritism and bias towards the wine industry and throwing the local small business model under the bus. Big wine has other options. Most small business owners do not.
The Central Coast of California has already abandoned the same model you are still promoting in this county. There, rural tasting rooms have closed and subsequently reopened at downtown locations where infrastructure exists to handle the additional parking, sewage, and water use, allowing communities to be neighborhoods. Why are we supporting such a bad model that is doomed to failure?
Sonoma’s rural tasting rooms were failing before the pandemic and needed a new economic paradigm. Allowing more events under the guise of bogus marketing only postpones the fact that this industry has seen better days and cannot thrive in its current incarnation. We have grape glut, changing consumption patterns and a looming economic free fall. We are all adjusting; why is Sonoma County still stuck in the past?
for Wine and Water Watch
Dr. Shepherd Bliss